That Which Is Discussable

I predictably say to both students and colleagues that the teaching of analytic writing in college should be preceded (and accompanied) by the teaching of persuasion as an art and a way of life. Waiting until you’re in the thick of writing to talk about what makes a good argument, or how an argument flows convincingly from one point to the next, is too late.

There is a whole understory of small skills that are part of being a good college student that are even less often the explicit focus of instruction. I’ve talked about the skimming of reading assignments and searching skills before. Here’s another in the same vein: looking for something that is worth discussing in a reading assignment.

Some reading in college is strictly informational, material you’ve got to know for the test. Some reading is both informational and designed to be a platform for exploration in some kind of discussion format.

Discussion varies. In very small, discussion-intensive classes, the range of things a student has to be prepared to discuss about the material can be extensive. At that point, the student’s general quality of mind and overall knowledge have to play a role. A long, discussion-intensive class is like an improv stage performance. There’s only so much you can prepare in advance that’s specific to that particular performance.

A larger class with a discussion component might require a narrower preparation for discussion or participation. Many of my thematic classes in recent years have been large for Swarthmore (30-35 students), so I can’t do some of the more decentered, exploratory discussion that I like. (Though no matter what the format, I hate a discussion class where there is no concrete “take-away” at the end of the meeting, where it’s been just like an encounter session with a lot of aimless gabbing.) I have to do more of what I term “call-and-response” discussion. A student who wants to be prepared for that only needs a good general sense of the reading and one or two choice samples of “discussable” issues.

Sometimes those issues are bleedingly obvious. When I go into a class session where I’ve thrown a huge pile of red meat on the table in the form of readings, and nothing happens in the discussion, I pretty much come to the conclusion that either the students didn’t do the readings or that they did them poorly. Some classes are an exclusive diet of such readings. If you’re in a class on bioethics, for example, you’re probably going to be reading things that you could talk about even without having done the reading. (Not that you should.) I often structure my classes so that these kinds of readings come later in the semester, partly because I want us to come at them with some sort of knowledge rather than to talk about them the way some pundit might rave and rant.

Some subject matter doesn’t give you that kind of opportunity much. My current Environmental History of Africa course doesn’t offer that sort of material much until we get to current policies and political struggles later in the semester. So a student looking for discussion in that kind of material has to circle around and look for opportunity. When the challenge is harder, here’s some basic strategies that I use myself when I’m thinking about things to talk about.

I’ll refer some to two fairly technical articles that I assigned in my Environmental History course today on the history of iron smelting and usage in Africa, partly because these were among the most difficult to discuss readings that I’ve assigned in many years. Not because they’re hard to read, but because there just doesn’t seem to be much to talk about in them. I had to circle around them quite a lot the last week thinking of things to say about them beyond, “Now you know something about iron production”. But in the end I came up with a few things that (I hope) were a bit more interesting than that. Sometimes preparing for discussion is like working on a puzzle, for both students and faculty.

1) Questions about factual material that is implicit but not explained in the material, even seemingly naive questions. A lot of Swarthmore students seem reluctant to ask questions of this kind, but they’re often the very best to ask for everyone’s sake. The answers benefit the whole class as well as the asker, and more importantly, they may often open the window to more profound or complex issues. Yes, there’s the danger that the professor (or other students) are going to tell the asker that this question is answered elsewhere in the reading. This is one reason to ask these questions in a humble fashion. Yes, there’s the danger that the professor is going to say, “You mean you seriously don’t know where Germany is?” or some such. But you know, it may turn out that most students don’t know that, and so the student who asks is a hero who is taking a bullet for the whole team. You may also ask about something the professor doesn’t know about, which is fine.

So in my history of iron readings, I was thinking about things like, “How do you actually smelt iron?”, “Why do you need an apparatus to smelt it?” and “Where and how do you find iron?” as I was preparing, things I don’t know off the top of my head. Those would have been welcome questions (as it is, I went ahead and answered them for the whole class before anyone asked).

2) Questions or comment about evidence and methodology used in a reading. Maybe there are disciplines where these are not welcome questions, but in a history class, they’re almost always germane. To formulate those questions while reading, the student has to look at footnotes, at the methodology described in the text, at the ways the material makes use of evidence, and then come up with a comment or question that responds to that aspect of the reading.

3) Relation of material to previously assigned material. This is a good way to look smart and to look like you’re paying attention: seeing a connection between readings or materials assigned. You don’t want the connection to appear overly arbitrary: I remember a class on cultural history I taught many many years ago where the student got very excited about the way that the color red was talked about in a wide range of scholarly materials, when that was barely important to most of them. With today’s iron assignment, I picked out the argument of one scholar about the relationship between woodcutting for charcoal preparation and “derived savannah” in West Africa and talked about it in connection with an earlier reading that criticized the entire idea of “derived savannah”.

4) Direct response to analytic or argumentative content in a reading. When you find an argumentative or analytic statement in a reading, it’s like the prize at the bottom of the cereal box. Treasure it. Even a small claim might be the acorn that grows into a mighty oak of talk. Try to figure out in particular what some other scholar might say against that claim. Sometimes scholars are good enough to tell you who or what they’re arguing against, other times you’ve got to infer it. Sketching out a field of scholarly or intellectual debate within a reading is a crucial part of preparing for discussion. Here the questions, “Why? So what? What’s at stake?” are essential. In talking about the history of iron production, I reviewed the long-standing debate about whether there was a separate invention of iron smelting in African history with just those questions in mind. The readings didn’t provide a full picture of that debate, but there was enough to at least open up the issue.

5) High-level synthesis of reading in relation to the themes of the course. This is hard to do early in the semester, easier to do later in the semester. It takes some skill to fit a specific reading into a general interpretation. Some of the students who try to do this kind of synthesis are often the people who didn’t do the reading, where it’s a substitute for engagement. But if you can do it well, it’s a memorable kind of contribution to a class. A professor will long remember and cherish a student who can situate a reading in relation to the course as a whole, particularly if the student’s synthesis captures something unique that hadn’t even occurred to the professor. (That’s happened to me a number of times at Swarthmore, where students have seen themes running through the readings that I didn’t consciously notice myself.) So for the iron readings, I tried to continue our review of the question between environmental preconditions and social forms and practices in Africa, and particularly to look at the spiritual, political and cultural forms that accompany ironworking in African history.

6) The one cool thing that caught your eye, for personal reasons. Especially if there’s a lull in the discussion, it can often be really useful to simply say, “I thought this idea/image/claim was fascinating” and to try to explain a bit of why you found it so. You don’t want to force this–someone claiming to be fascinated who isn’t really feeling that way is very obvious. You can be self-indulgent, too. At least in my classes, I don’t want that to lead into a ten-minute soliloquy about how the image of an iron forge shaped like a woman was interesting because it reminds you a time your grandmother made cookies for you in a clay oven, etcetera–but honest, simple interest in a particular phrase, idea, or point is a great contribution to a class discussion.

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11 Responses to That Which Is Discussable

  1. jpool says:

    Thanks, this was really useful.

    One thing I’ve struggled with is how to get the students to open up the issue of background debates in ways where I’m not just giving them the answer (always tempting) but also not making them endlessly tease out issues that they have no way of knowing about. I think part of this for me is simply needing to be more strategic about this over the course of the semester in ways that will only become clear through teaching the material multiple times.

  2. jpool says:

    Thanks also for your response to Medved. His infuriating, if by now somewhat boiler plate, essay might be useful for having students try to critique/deconstruct. But then I’ll get accused of indoctrination. Sigh.

  3. Western Dave says:

    And the thing is, students need to do this early and often to get the hang of it. At my independent school we spend a lot of time on 2,3,4, and 6. For many students, 6 is the hardest part, yet the most rewarding. We get at it by having kids make a line down the page and summarize an argument on the one side and do commentary about what catches them off guard on the other. Books that go against received knowledge work well here. We use The World that Trade Created for this exercise. But they have to give themselves permission to be interested in the stuff. 2 we explore by asking “How do we know this.” 3 is part of the way we teach annotation. Students are told explicitly to look for material that connects to something earlier even (and especially) when the text does not make that connection. 4 we get at by having students mark up readings with Es for evidence and As for argument. What’s evidence? What’s argument? Is this the only possible interpretation for this argument? 5 our students tend to have an easy time with although it is not something we explicitly teac. They frequently ask which theme a particular topic relates to and other students can usually answer. It helps that the key themes are addressed on the first day of class and that by the time they hit Upper School they know how to keep a binder properly (a skill I wish I had in grad school much less high school).

  4. dr says:

    Hmm. I teach a lot of first-year students, who I think tend to gravitate towards 6 first and foremost, and I’ve found that fostering that gives me the lever I need to move into 3-5.

    I’m always concerned, though, when I hear people emphasizing the role of persuasion in academic and analytic writing. You’re certainly right — it’s there in many ways — but that can lead us (and students) to think of academic arguments as being somehow akin to Op/Ed pieces, which are actually much less nuanced than the kind of writing I think we want college students to produce. Similarly, it seems to me that the most far-reaching of the types of discussable questions you identify are less about persuasion than they are about engagement.

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    Agreed about persuasion, dr. What I mean by that is maybe closer to what you have in mind by engagement. I spend some time in class and in paper comments discouraging the op-ed form of persuasion in analytic writing.

  6. Doug says:

    Actually, “Where is Germany?” is really an interesting question. “In the middle of Europe” is one answer, but that really depends on where Europe’s eastern border is, which is also a very interesting question. (Taking the Urals as the eastern border puts the geographic center somewhere in Lithuania, I think.)

    Standing in, say Elsäss, South Tyrolia, Austria, East Prussia or Schleswig-Holstein and asking, “Am I in Germany?” is an interesting question. Anyway, I’m sure you get the point, and far be it from me to encourage finer-grained examination at this particular blog (see choir, preaching to), but even your example of a clearly dumb question has answers that reveal interesting things.

  7. Doug says:

    Ack, “really” twice in two sentences. Time for me to go to lunch, as my internal copyeditor is obviously already gone. Please consider both instances of “really” stricken from the comment.

  8. Dance says:

    I think I hold encounter sessions. This piece seems to be aimed at students preparing for reading, but I’m not totally following how the call and response works from the professor’s side. Can you expand?

  9. heronhouse says:

    FWIW, those were some of my favorite readings of the semester, though that might have been because they weren’t long enough for my mind to start wandering.

    I agree with your comments on the differing levels of participation required for large/small classes. One thing I’ve noticed in this class, and throughout my time in college, is that, in discussions, students will often fail to bring up things they feel are “obvious”, even if that’s all the professor is looking for. There’s a bit of a stigma attached to pointint out obvious things, and “Master of the Obvious” is a classic “annoying classmate” persona.

  10. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah, I can see that. Though sometimes one of my shortcomings is that I do this “Can you read my mind?” sort of question, a kind of Mad Libs approach to discussion where I’m asking students to fill in the blanks. I always kick myself silently when I catch myself doing it.

    Dance, what I think of as call-and-response is something I start doing in topical classes that are above 22 or so students. If the class is smaller, I come in with a less specific agenda of what I want to talk about in the discussion, because I feel we can be more exploratory. There’s more of a chance to find out how each student has read and thought about the material, and have some back-and-forth conversation about it. Once I cross the low 20s, trying to do that means that there’s going to be two classes, in effect: the class of students who are involved in discussion and a second class of students who end up having to listen, just because of the constraints of size.

    So in call-and-response, I’ve got a more tightly prepared or constrained agenda of things I want to do with the reading and I do a good deal more improvised mini-lecturing in between. So, for example, when we read two pieces that had a fairly Foucauldian take on environmental studies, I started off with a mini-lecture on Foucault. I think it’s a slightly less satisfying way to go than the more open-ended kind of discussion, but I’ve learned the hard way that a class which is too large for open-ended discussion needs to be organized a bit differently.

    In a smaller class, I may “take the reins” from time to time, but I’m also content to let things go to places I hadn’t planned. The one thing I do try to do is interpret most of the student comments, to put them in perspective for everyone, to seize on the part of the comment that is generative of some larger insight or a window into debate.

  11. Dance says:

    Thanks, Tim, very helpful.

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